The panel discussion today at Depaul has had my gears spinning all afternoon regarding books/chapbooks and self-publication, pros and cons. I was the only panelist who seemed to be in favor of it, but it's hard to articulate the WHY and the caveats. I think I always have issues with the ideas of "gatekeepers" and "legitimacy," those ever present hobgoblins. Since I guess being an editor no matter how small the operation puts me among the "gatekeepers," that's probably exactly why I dont put all that much stock in them. I tend to publish what I like, what I feel needs to get out there, what strikes me. I make no claims to be creating literary culture (although by default, that sort of happens). I know the huge amount of subjectivity that goes into how editors, how presses choose what they publish. How many factors can make one mss. succeed while another fails when the work in both is similar, is just as sound.
I've always suspected audience plays a role here. I'm thinking in particular of those awful books of inspirational poetry one finds at B&N...not my cup of tea, certainly not the sort of poetry I like, but someone must be buying them if a chain store is willing to carry them. But then, even poets who I'm supposed to, as a "serious poet," love (Billy Collins /Maya Angelou-like poets) sometimes strike me the same way--not my thing and yet they sell more than most poets I know ever will. To your average non-poet, there is no distinction between Helen Steiner Rice and Mary Oliver. So if there seems to be audience for everthing, doesn't it seem to follow, indeed, that anything goes?
The gatekeeper analogy seems suspect, seems to bother me most, and I'm not sure why. That somehow there is a test you have to pass that allows you into the poetry world and that you can try and yet be found wanting. During the panel, however, the subject of community came up. And it does make sense, that sometimes self-publication does eschew the idea of such a literary community that one gets by proxy when one publishes with a press, when one engages with the traditional activities of publishing ones work in journals, in networking, forming connections with other writers and editors. In that respect, self publishing would seem to be self-defeating, unless you had some sort of framework set up to benefit from such community while still issuing your own work. And of course, much of it depends on how you define your "community". In the spoken word poetry community, a large number of poets put out their own books and sell quite a few of them at readings. In the academic world, you might as well shoot yourself in the foot.
As for the work, I would like to say the poet just KNOWS when he/she is ready to put a book or chapbook out into the world, but even that seems to be faulty. Sure, I thought I was writing great stuff fifteen years ago, but was it definitely wasn't ready to be put out there. But there are also other guages to determine if you're not just kidding yourself--critique groups, workshops, academic programs, journal publications. I saw a chap mss. from a poet last year during our reading period that seriously depressed me. It was a segment from a full-length book that was a bit too traditional for dgp, but in the cover letter the poet talked about her struggle over the last 17 odd years, years in which she had published all the poems in the book in journals, had been a finalist in over 20 book contests, had won numerous things like grants and fellowships and yet this poor book limped sadly on still unpublished..It made me sad. It made me angry that there was the general consensus, at least, that this was entirely comonplace and even acceptable. Maybe I'm just impatient. Maybe its generational, my quick fix MTV generational angst. From the time I put together the first version of the fever almanac in the summer of 2003 until it was picked up in fall 2005 was the longest unbearable stretch of time, you would have thought it was 10 years instead of 2..I felt like I was waiting for something to begin (what I don't know, not much changed..I had a book, then I had two, but my life really isn't any different.) I felt like I was holding my breath.
And of course, the necessity of the book I waited those years for in my head still seems slightly hypocritical to me, slightly at odds with my DIY-Screw the Establishment Ethos. I wanted that book like you wouldn't believe even while running around and saying that it meant nothing. I have always wanted to be one of those writers who just writes for their own gratification, never showing it to the world, completely content to scribble for days for their own enjoyment and then just burn the pages. Perhaps that is "writing" in its purest form. But I've always needed an audience. The poems don't feel finished until they've reached their logical conclusion.
But, we always come to the bottleneck. One would suspect that it has eased over the years, grown wider with the accessibility of publishing, the formation of micropresses, the advent of POD. I think it's easier, than say 20 years, to get your work out in the world these days, but that ease has, of course, corresponded with more and more poets pouring out of MFA programs (as well as non academically trained writers)all competing for the same things. So I'm not sure if it's really easier, or if, in fact, it's much more difficult. Looking around at the poets I know in my age bracket (early to mid 30's) it seems book publication comes eventually, sometimes quickly, sometimes after much angst, but still it happens, so maybe we are lucky. But I've no clue if this is the general experience among people actively sending out mss.
Just some notes on my thinking. I still have no conclusions.